Elgin group helps men over 50 build friendships through volunteering
Gary Smith tried various ways of volunteering -- at the public library, at a senior center -- but they just weren't striking the right chord. So he started his own group.
"I wanted to do something where I would feel a benefit from helping others get a benefit," 71-year-old Smith said, "and that's what the shed turned out to be."
"The shed" is the Elgin Area Men's Shed, a group primarily open to men 50 and over who want to do hands-on volunteer projects. The group started in November and has about 16 members who have built "bridges," or raised platforms, for the Girl Scouts, rebuilt a garden gate for a widow in Hampshire, and installed planters for the South West Area Neighbors organization in Elgin.
The ultimate goal is to help men connect with each other and build friendships, which in turn helps their overall health and well-being, said Smith, who lives in Elgin.
"It's men getting out, meeting other individuals and becoming active in the community," he said. "By doing that, all of us, we avoid the isolation ... When we get out and meet people, it helps with depression. It helps to elevate us."
There are 14 men's sheds across the country and Elgin's is the only one in Illinois. They are separate nonprofits under the umbrella of the U.S. Men's Shed Association, after an initiative that started in Australia in the mid-1990s, Smith said.
The Elgin Area Men's Shed's latest project was building 10 garden benches for the Girl Scouts at Camp Dean in Big Rock, where the group did great work, said John Bowersox, park ranger at Camp Dean.
"When we have other volunteers come up, it's more picking up garbage, cleaning up the stream, cleaning up the trails ... " Bowersox said. "But some of these guys have real skills. They can use power tools and saws and what have you."
Group member Steve Knight of Elgin said the hands-on projects are "a blast" and have helped him become physically healthier. "It's given me a feeling of accomplishment. I've made so many new friends with this," said Knight, who was the first to join Smith and is now assistant director of the group.
Smith said he learned about the men's shed initiative after his wife watched a segment on the "Today" show. He contacted Glenn Sears, founder of the first U.S. group in Honolulu, Hawaii, which now runs 80 members strong.
Sears said Monday that 11 more groups are organizing across the country.
"The downside of growing old is losing friends. They move away to be near their kids or they die or whatever, and you lost all the friends you had from the years of work," Sears said. "It's a definite social problem, and that's what men's sheds are meant to fix."
Men's sheds center around men but women wouldn't be excluded, Smith said.
There is no charge for labor but the group typically asks for the cost of materials. Upcoming projects include building portable stands for the Gail Borden Public Library in Elgin and shelving for Senior Services Associates in Elgin.
The Elgin group is looking for new members as well as a donated, or low-cost, space of at least 1,100 square feet to serve as headquarters and workshop somewhere in the Elgin area, Smith said.
Anyone interested can contact Gary Smith at (847) 931-4260 or firstname.lastname@example.org.